A Peace Perspective

For the past few years I, like many other people, have done a lot of antiwar work. For me and my colleagues at AFSC that meant rebuilding a U.S. peace movement capable of holding demonstrations and creating citizen pressure to end the Iraq War. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attack, this was not easy work. It meant focusing on the human cost of war, including reaching out to veterans and military families with the Eyes Wide Open exhibit, which memorializes the dead of the Iraq War. It meant a focus on truth in recruiting, and making young people from poor communities aware of the alternatives to military service for college money and work experience. It meant public education and lobbying and doing everything we can to stop the Iraq War and prevent the beginnings of new wars.

Once we were among the few who, in the aftermath of the 9/11/01 attack on the World Trade Center, were willing to publicly oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now there is a large majority of people in the United States who want to see these wars ended. Eventually, we will succeed in ending them. But what are the lessons to be learned from this misadventure in U.S. imperialism? What are the legacies of the Iraq war? How do we prevent the next war? More importantly, how do we build real peace that is more than the absence of war?

There is a tendency in the U.S. for the peace movement to rise and fall in response to unpopular wars. Once an unpopular war is over, like Vietnam or the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the peace movement evaporates and people move on to other important causes or personal concerns. There is an antiwar sentiment, but we peace people have not yet built a citizen’s movement that embraces peacemaking in its fullest sense. That is the task before us. Like the abolition of slavery or gaining voting rights for women, it is not a short task. Both causes took generations. But fortunately the task is already well begun, and we stand on the shoulders of others. Despite the setbacks we are experiencing, the road to true peace in the world is visible. I believe it is now time to begin anew to teach peace. With Iraq still in flames and more wars threatened, there is certainly still a need for antiwar work. Yet, in the midst of the ongoing violence we can begin to move from antiwar work into peace-building work.

I see four key elements in this shift of our energies.

First is a question of faith. We have a Peace Testimony, a belief that living together in a peaceful community is not only what God calls us to do, it is also possible and practical. Jesus said, "I come that you might have life and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). I think that was not about the afterlife, but about the here and now. Early Friends believed we should live now as though the kingdom of God were at hand. In the experience of trying to live it, we help to bring it into being. We are called to live into the peaceable kingdom, and in that living discover the joy of a better way of life—in harmony with the Earth and one another. Peacemaking is not only possible but practical every day. We live in a warrior culture in a highly militarized society that spends more than half a trillion dollars every year on its military. In such a culture, where violence is glorified and taught, peacemaking takes faith. By living the faith, we gain the experience to which we testify. In my view, the living of the Peace Testimony is the great test of faith of this generation of Quakers.

The second involves understanding, and living, the relationship of the Testimony on Peace and the Testimony on Equality. All of us are equal before God. Any of us may be the instrument by which Truth is revealed. While there are differences in gifts, and we each have our particular strengths and weaknesses, we are all valued and loved by God. This was very radical stuff for the class-bound England of George Fox’s time. Equality was the foundation for Friends work against slavery and for Friends work on suffrage and equal rights for women. The belief in the equal rights of all persons, and the equality of all persons before God, is also the foundation of the various movements for justice. I picked up a poster at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Dr. King preached. The poster quotes King, "True peace is not the absence of tension but the presence of Justice." In the U.S., the work for peace and the work for justice are too often separated, reflecting the divisions of race and class within our society. In our daily lives, in our communities, in our professional and business lives, and in our political work, the joining of peace and equality are essential.

Third, we need to remember the history of our successes. Peace-builders tend to be visionary and forward-looking people. This is fine, except that visionaries can get so focused on looking ahead that we forget to look back at the road we’ve traveled and the lessons learned. Whenever you’re trying to build something new, it’s very helpful to have historians who help us remember the past and understand the ground we’re standing on. Looking back at the work of peace-building over the past couple of centuries is very inspiring. We are building on good foundations.

Here are some examples of what we have to work with:

  • The structures and principles of international law, including an International Court of Justice and an International Criminal Court. Our task is to get the U.S. to participate and recognize international law.
  • A functioning United Nations that includes almost all the nations of the world. It may need reform and improvement, but it exists, and it has done some great work.
  • A Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and principles in the Geneva Conventions of how refugees and other vulnerable populations should be treated. Implementation may still be weaker than we wish, but the principles are accepted by most.
  • An end to the colonial empires that caused so much suffering in the world for so long. We do need to watch for the emergence of new forms of colonialism, but the old empires are gone.
  • A new science and practice of peacemaking has emerged in the past 50 years. Skills of arbitration, negotiation, and mediation are taught. Peace and world order studies are taught in higher education. The field of peace research is helping
    us understand how to contain and even prevent deadly conflict. We need to learn and share the stories of the wars that didn’t happen because of the works of peace-building.
  • The works of Gandhi, King, and others show a nonviolent path to social justice through popular nonviolent movements of social change. Even entrenched, violent regimes have been peacefully overthrown by the power of nonviolence.

Other examples and stories can inspire us with the possibility that we can leave a more peaceful world to the next generation. I invite you to ponder and share your own stories of success.

Finally, we need to articulate a vision of peace. This need not be on a global scale, though some may undertake such a venture. For others, envisioning a more peaceful family situation could be pretty formidable. Many of us live in cities with hundreds of murders and thousands of violent crimes every year. Maybe we’re called to envision a more peaceful neighborhood. In truth, bringing peace to the Religious Society of Friends and our Friends meetings and churches sometimes requires acts of divine intervention.

Wherever we are called to be peacemakers, it helps if we have a vision or an understanding of the first tentative steps of the peace we hope to build. In that venture we will be humbled and changed as we learn more about God’s vision for us. If we are open to that divine guidance, we may even gain a vision of ourselves as more peaceful persons. If we are truly blessed, we may learn the meaning of the Beatitude, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God."

Mary Lord

Mary Lord, a member of Adelphi (Md.) Meeting, joined AFSC in September 2001 and served from March 2002 until May 2007 as associate general secretary for Peace and Conflict Resolution.